WASHINGTON — The nation’s top business and labor groups are nearing agreement on a guest worker program for low-skilled immigrants, a final sticking point that had stalled negotiations late last week on a broad immigration overhaul, and are closing in on a deal that could come as early as Friday, according to officials involved in the talks.
An agreement between the labor and business communities would clear one of the last hurdles for an overall deal on immigration legislation in the Senate, which the bipartisan group hopes to introduce early next month.
“We are very close, closer than we’ve ever been,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York and a member of a bipartisan group of senators working on comprehensive immigration legislation. “We are very optimistic, but there are a few issues remaining.”
The United States Chamber of Commerce and the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the nation’s main federation of labor unions, have been in discussions parallel to those of the Senate group, and have reached a tentative agreement about the size and scope of a temporary guest worker program, which would grant up to 200,000 new visas annually for low-skilled workers. The labor-business talks came close to breaking down last Friday, on the eve of a two-week Congressional recess, over the issue of what the pay levels should be for low-skilled immigrants, often employed at restaurants or on construction projects, who could be brought in when employers said they faced labor shortages.
One of the last sticking points in the business-labor negotiations has been the specific type of jobs that would be excluded from the program. The nation’s construction unions, officials in the talks said, have succeeded in persuading the negotiators to exclude certain types of higher-skilled jobs — including crane operators and electricians — from the guest worker program.
Eliseo Medina, the secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union and one of labor’s most influential voices on immigration issues, said, “We may be very close to a point where the senators will have an announcement soon.”
One official involved in the talks said that the business community was likely to see a number of visas that it considered satisfactory, while the agreement on wages pleased labor because it would not affect the labor market adversely.